Outdoor Policy: A Key Venue for Equity Solutions

Signal Group

Managing Directors and Co-Chairs of Signal Outdoors, Charles Cooper and Patrice Willoughby discuss an emerging agenda around outdoor recreation and the opportunity to remove barriers and increase equity.

The Biden administration and the Congress are viewing policy, in part, through an equity lens. The growing national debate around diversity, equity, and inclusion will certainly have strong footprint on many policies moving through the legislative and regulatory process. However, an emerging agenda around outdoor recreation highlights one policy area with an overwhelming opportunity to remove barriers and increase equity. Here are three important opportunities:
The Outdoors for All Act: This legislation will create the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program at the Department of the Interior, which will provide grants to acquire land or water to develop or renovate local parks and outdoor recreation facilities. Grants will be prioritized for projects that create more outdoor opportunities in urban communities, focus on empowering underserved communities and youth, and provide opportunities for youth employment or job training.
The Outdoors for All Act recently passed the House of Representatives as part of a larger package and has strong support in the Senate as well as the administration – Vice President Harris led this legislation when she served in the Senate. Look to this legislation to be incorporated into another bill to get across the finish line this year.
FAST Act Reauthorization: Reauthorization of surface transportation will need to be completed or extended by September 30th. This legislation is likely to have a significant impact on the equity debate as underserved communities are increasingly disconnected from quality, safe, and affordable transportation infrastructure. Transportation solutions can help better connect communities to jobs, errands, and outdoor recreation, while also stimulating significant job creation in communities that need it most.
Expect both the House and Senate versions of this legislation to dramatically increase funding for active transportation (biking and walking), especially as it relates to the Transportation Alternatives Program and the Recreation Trails Program. Additionally, the Active Transportation Connectivity Grants Program, included in the House version of the bill last year, would invest in connecting trails and prioritizes those investments in underserved communities. Other legislation, like the bipartisan Transit to Trails Act, which provides targeted grants for the purpose of connecting transit to trail heads and greenspaces, could also make its way into the reauthorization.
21st Century Conservation Corps / Civilian Climate Corps: Several proposals have been introduced in Congress to create a 21st Century Conservation Corps (most recently led by Rep. Neguse (D-CO) and Senator Wyden (D-OR). At the same time, an early Executive Order released by President Biden announced a Civilian Climate Corps. Both proposals are focused on creating jobs to help support maintenance backlog projects, conservation projects, and other projects seeking to strengthen outdoor recreation and public lands.
 As this concept increasingly gains traction at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, there is an enormous opportunity to leverage this program (in whatever form it takes) to focus on outdoor recreation projects that create more opportunity in underserved communities and create job opportunities for people in underserved communities. Expect this concept to remain an economic recovery priority for Congress and the White House.
Infrastructure: The seemingly never-ending debate around infrastructure will likely be wrapped into either FAST Act reauthorization, economic recovery legislation, or both. This debate is expected to reach across most sectors, but outdoor recreation may have an outsized advantage given both the bipartisan nature of their policy priorities and the significant impact of the outdoor recreation economy.
The infrastructure package will likely seek to invest in outdoor infrastructure to provide more opportunities for people to connect to the outdoors locally, especially in underserved communities.
For most people, a summer vacation in Yellowstone National Park or Tongass National Forest is simply unreachable. Traditional barriers like transportation and cost combined with a need for more quality local parks have created a significant disparity in some regions as it relates to outdoor recreation. Minority communities are too often subject to bias, profiling, and racism in the outdoors. Underserved communities often lack quality outdoor recreation infrastructure, which prevents many communities from benefiting from the health and wellness, transportation, and economic impacts of outdoor recreation. Clearly, there is a lot of work to do to make sure the outdoors is available to everyone.
The policy landscape this year has real opportunity to change that reality; building off last year’s historic victory of permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which will directly invest in local parks. While many sectors will be focusing on equity, the opportunities within the outdoor policy space are significant and well-positioned to have an enormous impact on the broader national conversation around equity.

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